By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations thanked Hollywood on Wednesday for raising awareness of cultural crimes during conflict with the movie "The Monuments Men" as the world body tries to stop the pillaging of Syria's heritage during the country's three-year civil war.
UNESCO, the U.N. cultural, education and science arm, has in the past month started to train customs officials and police in neighboring Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan to look for the trafficking of cultural objects out of Syria, said Francesco Bandarin, assistant director-general for culture at the agency.
Bandarin said the new Hollywood film - which tells the story of experts tasked with retrieving artistic treasure stolen by the Nazis during World War Two - would raise global awareness of the illegal trade in artifacts stolen during more recent conflicts, such as Syria, Mali and Libya.
"I would like to thank Hollywood for bringing this issue to global attention because sometimes Hollywood is more powerful than all the U.N. system put together," Bandarin said of the film, which opens in North America on Friday and stars George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray and Cate Blanchett.
"This issue of heritage protection will be on everybody's mind and for us this is a tremendous opportunity," he told reporters at the United Nations in New York.
The European Union gave UNESCO 2.5 million euros ($3.4 million)this week to establish a team in Beirut to gather better information on the situation in Syria, to fight the trafficking of artifacts and to raise awareness internationally and locally, he said.
Syria's history stretches back through the great empires of the Middle East to the dawn of human civilization, but cultural sites and buildings around the country, such as Aleppo's Umayyad Mosque, have been looted, damaged or destroyed in the conflict.
Bandarin said some objects had already been recovered in Beirut, including statues that had been illegally excavated in the desert town of Palmyra. Illegal archeological excavations across the country pose a great cultural threat, he said.
"Most of the objects that we saw are essentially statues or parts of statues. We know also that other objects that are more difficult to retrieve, like coins and metal objects, are circulating," he said of what was found in Beirut.
The Syrian government has told UNESCO it had emptied the country's 34 museums and moved the contents to safer places.
Maamoun Abdulkarim, head of Syria's antiquities and museums told Reuters last year that tens of thousands of artifacts spanning 10,000 years of history were removed to specialist warehouses to avoid a repeat of the storming of Baghdad's museum by looters following the 2003 U.S. invasion and overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The United Nations says more than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria's conflict, which began in March 2011 with popular protests against President Bashar al-Assad and spiraled into civil war after a crackdown by security forces.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)